How NASA en­gi­neers mourn the death of a beloved space­craft

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Local/State - By Deb­o­rah Netburn

LA CANADA FLIN­TRIDGE — They called it a wake, but the loved one they had come to mourn wasn’t a per­son.

It was the Cassini space­craft, the ro­botic ex­plorer that had spent the last 13 years un­lock­ing the mys­ter­ies of Saturn, its rings and its many moons.

Soon af­ter Cassini va­por­ized like a shoot­ing star in the Satur­nian sky, about 175 mem­bers of the mis­sion’s en­gi­neer­ing team gath­ered in an airy ban­quet room at the La Canada Flin­tridge Coun­try Club to eu­lo­gize their space­craft.

There were toasts and singing. But there were some misty eyes as well.

“You have this great pride in all you were able to ac­com­plish,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project man­ager at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory. “But it’s still an emo­tional loss.”

When it comes to space­craft, even sci­en­tists get sen­ti­men­tal.

Th­ese fly­ing hunks of metal call their care­tak­ers in the mid­dle of the night, in­fu­ri­ate them with their quirks and daz­zle them with amaz­ing dis­cov­er­ies about the uni­verse.

So is it any won­der that when their time has passed, their hu­man han­dlers will feel a sense of loss?

Cassini’s in­stru­ments were work­ing just fine at the time of its demise; the prob­lem was that it was run­ning out of fuel. Mis­sion plan­ners wor­ried that if they didn’t crash the or­biter into the ringed planet, it might col­lide with one of Saturn’s ice moons and con­tam­i­nate it. That would com­pli­cate fu­ture ef­forts to search for signs of life there.

The team had seven years to prepare for the space­craft’s end on Sept. 15. But that didn’t make it easy to say good­bye.

Some of the as­sem­bled mourn­ers had been with the mis­sion since be­fore it blasted into space in 1997.

The ban­quet room was booked for five hours. It wasn’t enough.

When a space­craft dies, it’s not just the ex­plo­ration that comes to an end. It’s also the end of an in­tense col­lab­o­ra­tion here on Earth.

“Peo­ple put so much of their heart and ef­fort into what we used to call the care and feed­ing of the space­craft,” said Ei­lene Theilig, a plan­e­tary ge­ol­o­gist who worked as the project man­ager for the Galileo mis­sion to Jupiter at JPL and is now an or­dained min­is­ter in Fort Worth, Texas. “It is such a team ef­fort, and when it goes away, you are deal­ing not only with the loss of the space­craft, but also the loss of the team.”

Ni­co­las Al­to­belli, a sci­en­tist at the Euro­pean Space Agency, bid farewell to two space­craft in a 12-month pe­riod.

In ad­di­tion to serv­ing as the ESA’s prin­ci­pal sci­en­tist for Cassini, he worked on the agency’s Rosetta mis­sion to the comet known as 67P/Churyu­mov–Gerasi­menko. Af­ter a dozen years in space, Rosetta crash-landed on the comet’s aus­tere sur­face in Septem­ber 2016.

Work­ing on a flag­ship space mis­sion is like be­ing on a ship that has been sent to ex­plore a new world, he said.

“Ev­ery­one is kind of uni­fied by this one ob­ject, and that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “But when it’s over, you re­al­ize that it’s not the ship dis­ap­pear­ing that hurts the most, it’s the dis­man­tling of the crew.”

Some­times the sense of loss be­gins even be­fore the mis­sion ends.

Todd Bar­ber, Cassini’s lead propul­sion en­gi­neer, found him­self un­ex­pect­edly over­come by emo­tion dur­ing Cassini’s last weeks. He had just com­pleted a rou­tine re­port de­tail­ing how much pro­pel­lant was prob­a­bly left in the space­craft’s thrusters.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.